Diametros 40 (2014): 126–148
doi: 10.13153/diam.40.2014.633

“This New Conquering Empire of Light and Reason:” Edmund Burke, James Gillray, and the Dangers of Enlightenment[1]

James Schmidt

Abstract. This article examines the use of images of “light” and “enlightenment” in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and in the controversy that greeted the book, with an emphasis on caricatures of Burke and his book by James Gillray and others. Drawing on Hans Blumenberg’s discussion of the metaphor of “light as truth,” it situates this controversy within the broader usage of images of light and reason in eighteenth-century frontispieces and (drawing on the work of J.G.A. Pocock and Albert O. Hirschman) explores the ways in which Burke’s critique of Richard Price operates with a rhetoric that views Price as part of an enlightenment that was inherently “radical” and, hence, a threat to the “enlightenment” that, in Burke’s view, had already been achieved.

Keywords: Edmund Burke, Enlightenment, James Gillray, French Revolution, Richard Price, Caricature, Frontispieces, Light, Hans Blumenberg, Albert O. Hirschman, J.G.A. Pocock.

About a quarter of the way into the sprawling mass of invective, outrage, and digression that constitutes Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke offers a lurid account of the events of October 6, 1789, when an “almost naked” Marie Antoinette was compelled, along with Louis XVI, to leave Versailles and take up residence in Paris. Burke’s narrative of the indignities visited upon the royal family climaxes in a lament for the world that has been lost.

The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. […] All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.[2]

For Burke, the catastrophe unfolding in France was the result of a “barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance.”[3] This “barbarous philosophy” was, of course, the tradition of thought that we have come to call “the Enlightenment.”

Though Burke has long been viewed as the leading figure in the “revolt against the eighteenth century,” it bears remembering that his contemporaries were sometimes confused about where he stood.[4] He made his literary debut with A Vindication of Natural Society (1752), a work that so perfectly mimicked the critique of revealed religion in Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History that Burke found it necessary to add a preface to the second edition hinting that the work was intended as satire. His Philosophical Observations on Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) became a frequent point of reference for Enlightenment discussions of aesthetics. And as late as 1790, Thomas Paine — newly arrived in Paris — sent Burke a lengthy report on the progress of the revolution, assuming that this friend of the American cause would share Paine’s enthusiasm for what was taking place in France.[5]

The difficulty in determining whether Burke is best understood as a (not entirely reliable) friend of the Enlightenment or a charter member of the Counter-Enlightenment has much to do with the slipperiness of both concepts. As J.G.A. Pocock has noted, it is unclear whether the term “Counter-Enlightenment” designates “one brand of Enlightenment in opposition to another, or a fixed antipathy to Enlightenment in some final sense of the term.”[6] And, as Pocock has also argued, there are good reasons for thinking that a “final sense” of the term “Enlightenment” is likely to remain illusive.

In studying the intellectual history of the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth, we encounter a variety of statements made, and assumptions proposed, to which the term ‘Enlightenment’ may usefully be applied, but the meanings of the term shift as we apply it. The things are connected, but not continuous; they cannot be reduced to a single narrative; and we find ourselves using the word ‘Enlightenment’ in a family of ways and talking about a family of phenomena, resembling and related to one another in a variety of ways that permit of various generalizations about them. We are not, however, committed to a single root meaning of the word ‘Enlightenment,’ and we do not need to reduce the phenomena of which we treat to a single process or entity to be termed ‘the’ Enlightenment.[7]

Matters would have been even more complicated in 1790, when a number of different, and often conflicting, ways of characterizing the process known as “enlightenment” were in play.

One way of shedding light on those confusions is to look more closely at the image that looms so large in Burke’s attack on the “new conquering empire of light and reason”: the connection between light and reason itself. And that connection can most readily be approached by examining the flurry of caricatures that greeted the publication of Burke’s Reflections and the visual tropes they deployed. This article will begin by contrasting a few of these caricatures before looking, more generally, at a few of the more familiar allegorical images of light and reason. It will then focus more closely on James Gillray’s depiction of Edmund Burke and Richard Price in his Smelling out a Rat (1790), perhaps the most famous representation of the Reflections. It concludes with a few observations on Burke’s account of the relationship between politics and religion.

Representing the Reflections

The publication of the Reflections triggered rejoinders from Mary Wollstonecraft, James Mackintosh, Tom Paine, William Godwin, and a variety of less famous critics. Though somewhat less familiar to historians of political thought, the response to the work from practitioners of the art of political caricature was no less heated.[8] Particularly notable was the reaction of Burke’s long-time nemesis Frederick George Byron, who – apparently viewing the passage on Marie Antoinette as a gift from heaven – produced a series of attacks on Burke, each one more outrageous than the last. He opened his campaign on November 2, 1790 with a mock frontispiece for the book that pictured a smitten Burke on his knees before Marie, with a fluttering cupid further enflaming his brain.

frontispiece for the book that pictured a smitten Burke on his knees before Marie

Burke’s description of his encounter with Marie is quoted verbatim below the drawing. Byron continued the attack on November 15, portraying Burke as the Knight of Woeful Countenance, riding out of his publisher’s office to attack the French National Assembly.

Knight of Woeful Countenance

The emblems engraved on his shield drive home the political implications of the regime Burke sought to protect: the Bastille, a burning pyre, a prisoner in a cell, a prisoner being broken on the wheel. The face of the donkey on which Burke rode as he set off on his quixotic mission was that of Pope Pius VI, a gesture that raised questions about the Dublin-born Burke’s religious beliefs and positioned Burke as a latter-day representative of the Popish plot that Britain had dodged in 1688, an insinuation that was further reinforced by a quotation from the Reflections stating that “those who are habitually employed in finding and displaying faults, are unqualified for the work of reformation.”[9] A companion piece arrived three days later, which depicted an eventual reunion of “Don Dismallo” with his “Beautiful Vision.” An ecstatic Burke forswears his wife’s “eggs and bacon” in favor of the “delicious Dairy” of his “celestial Vision,” while an aroused Marie welcomes her “God of Chivalry” and babbles about her desire to seize his “invincible Shillelee.”[10]

In the battle of caricatures, Burke had one formidable champion: James Gillray, the greatest political caricaturist of his (and, perhaps, any) age. In Smelling Out a Rat – or The Atheistical Revolutionist Disturbed in His Midnight Calculations Gillary pictured the principal object of Burke’s attack – the clergyman, political philosopher, and actuary Richard Price – surprised by Burke’s sudden arrival in his chambers, where he labors over his latest political tract. But Gillray was, as Nicholas K. Robinson has noted, was a “dangerous man to employ” and was quite capable of making those whose cause he defended look almost as bad as those he was attacking.[11] In this case, he hit upon the masterstroke of reducing Burke to the two features that had long defined him in caricatures: his nose and his glasses.

design of Smelling Out a Rat

While this sly bit of synecdoche is lost on present day viewers, the broader design of Smelling Out a Rat is clear enough. Gillray stages what, in effect, is a battle between two different (and obviously unequal) sources of illumination. Emerging from the clouds that cover the left half of the print, light radiates from the crown and the cross – the symbols of union of political and ecclesiastical power that Burke was committed to defending — that Burke holds in his boney hands. At the far right, a small candle illuminates Price’s writing desk. But for all his inventiveness, Gillray was hardly alone in recognizing that, during the siècle de lumière, light came in a variety of forms and from a number of different directions.

Whose Light? Which Clouds?

The image of light dispelling darkness figured prominently in the iconography associated with the Enlightenment and one of the more popular ways of representing the ultimate triumph of light over darkness took the form of the image of the sun breaking through the clouds.[12] One of the better known instances of this particular trope appears as the frontispiece of Christian Wolff’s Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt (1719), where a smiling sun banishes the clouds and illuminates the village below.[13]